Education

Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz parliamentary delegation show the way

After spending quite a bit of time on foreign affairs, we have to return to domestic policies because soon enough parliament will reconvene, and the Fidesz and KDNP caucuses are preparing for the new session. Members of the caucuses get together, normally at some resort, and are sequestered for a few days. Their agenda is to set the tone of politics for the next five or six months. This time the Fidesz caucus met at the Balneo Wellness Hotel near Mezőkövesd, the center of an area known for its distinctive folk embroidery. Obviously, there is no shortage of funds in the Fidesz coffers. The caucus has 115 members, and several ministers and undersecretaries also attend these retreats.

Balneo Wellness Hotel

Balneo Wellness Hotel

I find these gatherings amusing, especially when I hear from Antal Rogán, the whip of the caucus, “we request and authorize the government” to do this or that. Naturally, the situation is the reverse, Viktor Orbán tells Antal Rogán what he expects them to do. If they come up with an idea of their own, which doesn’t happen too often, Orbán usually decides against it. Or if they want information from the prime minister, they don’t always get it. This time, for example, apparently the MPs wanted to know more about the visits of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, but they heard nothing about either. It also seems they were hoping to hear more about the deal between the government and the RTL Group. They should have known better. When Viktor Orbán loses a fight, he doesn’t like to talk about it. Or, if an encounter, like the one with Merkel, is not exactly a success, he changes the subject.

So, let’s see what Viktor Orbán actually wanted to talk about. His greatest concern seems to be the immigration of “economic refugees.” In the last two years their numbers have grown substantially, and recently they’ve spiked. While last year 42,000 requests for immigrant status were received, this year, just in January, 14,000 such requests were filed. Orbán’s solution to the problem is draconian. He wants “to bolt the door to Hungary” to all “economic immigrants because we don’t need any of them.” Hungarian economic emigrants leave in droves while Hungary is bolted tight to anyone coming from “another culture.” He will not wait for the European Union, which is far too slow. Hungary will act on its own. I wonder how they will deport all those people who are currently in Hungary and what will they do with those who are on their way. An Irish proverb says “Never bolt the door with a boiled carrot.” What will the Hungarians use?

The government must have realized that the so-called school reform initiated by the second Orbán government was a failure. All schools were nationalized except for a few private schools and were put under one huge umbrella organization that turned out to be totally incapable of supervising about 120,000 employees and thousands of schools. We don’t know how the government is planning to undo the chaos created by Rózsa Hoffmann (KDNP), but it looks as if another “reform” is underway. Every time I hear of a new school reform I just shudder. So far the government hasn’t talked to educational experts or teachers’ unions, and it hasn’t spelled out the details of its plan. It has simply resurrected an old idea of Zoltán Pokorny, former minister of education in the first Orbán government (1998-2002), to extend the eight grades of compulsory education by one year. Apparently, it was inspired by the “Polish model,” which introduced a ninth year of elementary education–along with an entirely new educational philosophy. It seems, however, that Viktor Orbán doesn’t like the idea, so most likely it will be dropped.

Another concern of Viktor Orbán is the state of Hungarian healthcare, which is rapidly deteriorating instead of improving. Orbán seems to be frustrated. At the meeting he complained that 500 billion extra forints had been sunk into healthcare and yet the hospitals are still in the red. Their current debt is 70 billion forints, which must be paid out of the central budget. Their suppliers, mostly Hungarian middle-size companies, are also hurting. For the time being, the newly appointed undersecretary will remain, but I have feeling that his days are numbered. The government’s solution is simple: forbid the hospitals from accumulating any new debts. If a hospital director doesn’t follow this order he will be fired. It is hard to fathom how such a strategy will help the situation. By the way, there’s an apparent contradiction worth mentioning here. On the one hand, the government wants to reduce the number of hospitals and most likely cut back on the number of employees, while on the other hand Antal Rogán “requested and authorized” the government to make money available for a brand new hospital in Budapest. It turns out that money for this new hospital will come from the European Union while maintaining the existing hospitals must come from Hungarian government resources.

Although the Hungarian media is full of the news that Viktor Orbán had to give in to the demands of RTL Klub without the television station toning down its news coverage of government corruption, we learned today that “Fidesz authorized the government to negotiate further with Brussels” concerning the advertising levy. What can that mean exactly? Well, nothing good, I fear. Viktor Orbán will take his sweet time thinking about the deal between János Lázár and the top management of the RTL Group. Moreover, Orbán made it clear that the amount of money he was hoping to get from the advertising levies cannot be reduced as a result of the compromise with RTL Klub. So, we can all use our imaginations trying to figure out what Viktor Orbán has in mind when he talks about further negotiations with Brussels.

If I properly interpret the leaks from the meeting of the Fidesz delegation, Orbán will not back down on government supervision of non-governmental organizations. In his opinion the Hungarian government is entitled to know what kinds of foreign subsidies are given to Hungarian civic groups. So, I assume the harassment of these groups will continue. So will the “national freedom fight.” Rogán revealed that “the Hungarian people expect that the government will always stand for the national interests” and that as a result of the government’s policies “national self-esteem” has grown during the last five years. Orbán also has no intention of changing his “independent” foreign policy because “Hungary has become a strong country” thanks to his leadership. He repeated that cheap gas means inexpensive utility prices, which he considers critical to his political longevity. Only Putin can give him what he needs. What Orbán will give in return is as yet unknown.

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“In defense of gymnasiums”: A cry for sanity

Absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton told us, it also damages everything it touches. It assumes not only omnipotence but omniscience. Unfortunately Viktor Orbán seems not to have realized that he is a mere mortal and has lots of gaps in his knowledge. In crafting national policy he doesn’t consult with experts because he is the expert on all things Hungarian. He tries to remake Hungarian society to reflect his own flawed image of the ideal nation.

One of his most dangerous experiments is in public education. Early in his administration we could already see how preoccupied he was with training the future Hungarian workforce, how he put more stock in things than in ideas. His latest plan to restrict entry to gymnasiums and to force most children to learn a trade after eighth grade is especially harmful. Although experts pointed out that eight grades of study before beginning a dual education is inadequate schooling in today’s world, they were not heeded, and probably not even read. A huge reorganization of education was ordered from above without any consultation.

A few days ago a thorough study was published by one of the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Department of Human Resources at the Budapest Corvinus University. The title of the study is “In the defense of gymnasiums.”

The amazing thing about most of Viktor Orbán’s reforms is that even the premises on which they are based are faulty. For example, the government’s claim that the number of trained skilled workers has decreased since the change of regime is just wrong. As the authors show in one of the many diagrams accompanying the study, although the number of graduates of trade schools (szakiskola) has decreased, the number of graduates from schools where students can also obtain a matriculation certificate enabling them to enter college has increased. This trend started already before 1990.

The other often repeated misconception is that attending a gymnasium or a trade school that offers matriculation certificates (szakközépiskola) is a waste of time and energy because these people cannot find employment. The fact is that with a matriculation certificate it is easier to obtain a job. Unemployment among those who did not finish high school is 8%, while among high school graduates it is 4.8%. Among college graduates it is 2.9%. There is also a wage difference between those who went only to trade school and those who while learning a trade also earned a high school diploma. The wage difference is 25% in favor of the latter.

Ordinary trade schools offer inferior educational opportunities. If we compare two children with similar potential, the one who goes to a trade school will perform worse than his counterpart in a high school offering dual education.

Orbán’s favorite hobby-horse is the “dual education” that is well-known in Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. However, according to the authors, Viktor Orbán misunderstands the concept. In Germany a student receiving a dual education will first spend between 7,155 and 7,950 hours on academic subjects. In Hungary it is only 5,742 hours. This is an appreciable difference. As if a Hungarian student were to spend ten or eleven years instead of the eight he does now on academic subjects. Or if a Hungarian high school student would spend not twelve but about fourteen years in high school. In Denmark two-thirds of skilled workers speak English right out of school. In Hungary less than one percent do. In Denmark only 40% of the dual-education school graduates actually end up on the shop floor. The others become technicians or lower- or middle management. One reason they can rise through the ranks is that, among other things, only 7% of Danish students have problems understanding documents. In Hungary that number is 37.3%.

Orbán and his “education team”are convinced that Hungary has too many university graduates. That is not the case. Hungary is actually in the lowest one-third among EU member countries, as can be seen in the graph below.

Percentages of university graduates broken down by age

Percentage of university graduates by age

Moreover, by restricting entry to gymnasiums the number of people who can enter university will also shrink. So, instead of boosting the number of college graduates as most countries are doing, Hungary will soon have the distinction of being among the least highly educated people in Europe.

I would like to call attention to the incredible leap Poland has made. Among the 45-54 age group Poland clearly trails behind many countries. This is the heritage of the socialist system. But now more than 40% of the 25- to 34-year-olds are university graduates.

Perhaps the greatest sin of the new system is that the restrictions to entering gymnasiums will most severely affect children from the lowest social strata. As it is, children coming from families belonging to the top fifth income bracket have a 2.3 times greater chance of entering gymnasium than children from the lowest fifth. With Orbán’s new system, children of rich families would have a 3.4 times greater chance of earning a high school diploma than their poor schoolmates. This inequality also holds true for higher education. Someone coming from a poor family would have his chance of entering college slashed by 30%.

The authors suggest that Hungary follow the Polish example. In Poland the number of years of study has been increased to thirteen. The Polish government has raised teachers’ salaries and introduced all sorts of modern methods of teaching. As a result, Polish achievement on the PISA tests has made a spectacular leap.

Of course, this study will remain a cry in the wilderness. In the last four years extensive changes have already been introduced in the structure of Hungarian education, accompanied by a decreasing amount of money being spent on education. Hungarian education was nothing to boast about even before, but what is happening now ensures total failure.

Trampling on individual freedom: First the Internet, now education

Almost a month ago I wrote a post that touched on Viktor Orbán’s brainstorm to introduce dual education. The upshot of the scheme is that some students will have to spend a large part of their time in school preparing themselves for a trade in a kind of apprentice program. Right after the announcement of that scheme on October 10, I wrote that Viktor Orbán was contemplating an educational program that  Nikita Khrushchev had tried in the Soviet Union. I reminded readers that the Soviet experiment had been a flop.

In my haste I fear I missed a sentence that foreshadowed what has come to light lately. Orbán is not thinking of introducing dual education within the present structure of public education. Instead, he plans to force a certain number of youngsters into vocational schools. This will be achieved by closing about half of the gymnasiums that currently graduate 190,000 students a year. Orbán wants no more than 60,000-80,000 matriculants. If more students would like to go to gymnasium, which is the traditional route to university, tough luck!

I can hardly find words to express my outrage. Orbán’s regime is trampling on Hungarians’ rights. The government fears the internet, so let’s make sure that fewer people can get to it. They decide that Hungary needs more skilled workers, so about 120,000 students are deprived of their right to enter the school of their choice.

Not that the current public school system is all that terrific or fair. I have a problem, for example, with the homogeneity of the student bodies of elite gymnasiums: practically all students come from the same socioeconomic group in Budapest and some of the larger cities. Admittedly, most countries have struggling educational systems; few can be described as success stories. Finland is always held up as a model given its spectacular results over the last twenty years, and lately one can read a lot about Poland where in the last ten years or so PISA test scores have shown a remarkable improvement.

Today there are three main types of schools serving Hungarian students between the ages of 14 and 18. There are the vocational schools that are, like their American equivalents, pretty useless. In these schools students spend a decreasing amount of time on academic subjects: 100% in grade 9 and 40% in grade 10. In the last two years they allegedly learn a trade. These schools don’t offer “matriculation,” without which one cannot enter university. The second type of school is unknown in Canada and the United States, the two countries I’m most familiar with. It is called “vocational middle school” (szakközépiskola). These schools seem to be a mixed bag. For example, some concentrate on economics, others train students to enter the catering business. These schools do offer the option to take matriculation examinations. The third type is, of course, the beleaguered gymnasium.

Earlier all these schools were under the ministry of education, but in 2010 the Orbán government abolished the separate ministry of  education and put it under the mammoth ministry of human resources. Well, that is coming to an end. From here on the two kinds of vocational schools will be overseen by the ministry of national economy. The man who will be responsible for these schools is Sándor Czomba, an engineer without any experience in education. Czomba in a speech at an exhibition ironically entitled “Decide well–At stake is your future!” outlined some of the steps that will be taken. Teachers, parents, students–be prepared. The government will examine each and every gymnasium and will decide which ones do and which ones don’t deserve to exist. Czomba reassured his audience that “this will not automatically mean that there will be no gymnasium in a given community.” Unreal!

The traditional graduation, "the ambling"  Fewer will be marching into universities

The traditional graduation, “the ambling”
Fewer will be marching into universities

How can they achieve their aim of reducing the number of students seeking acceptance in a gymnasium? There are several possible methods. For example, they could demand a certain grade point average as a prerequisite for entering gymnasium. Just think how many future leaders could fail right here. Pick your favorite: Winston Churchill comes to mind. They could try to steer students toward vocational education, in effect browbeating them, all the while describing student decisions as personal choices. The problem is that these “choices” severely limit future options. How many 14-year-olds know what they want to do with their lives? Mighty few. Even older students have a hard time deciding. One of my favorite stories is about a student of mine who complained that I had assigned a psychologist to serve as his freshman faculty adviser. What on earth was I thinking? I showed him: he himself had written the summer before arriving in New Haven that he wanted to be a psychologist. He didn’t even remember it.

To give you an idea of how far Orbán is from mainstream thinking, the European goal is that 75% of all youngsters take matriculation exams and that 40% of all matriculants enter college or university. With this new program Hungary cannot reach this goal. University-bound students will come mainly from gymnasiums, especially since the current five-year program of vocational middle schools will be reduced to four years, during which students will spend a great deal of their time engaging in practical training at the expense of traditional academic subjects. Moreover, the Orbán government wants to introduce stricter college entrance requirements. For example, students will have to know a foreign language. But since language training in Hungarian schools is notoriously poor, high school students will struggle to learn a language well enough to pass the required language exam. The surest path to passing the exam is private tutoring, which only well-off parents can afford. It is unlikely that students from the vocational middle schools will ever learn a language well enough straight out of high school, and few of them will have well-heeled parents who can pay for the necessary private lessons. As we will see tomorrow, the new undersecretary in charge of higher education, again an engineer and not an educator, already announced that Hungary does not need to have 40% of the adult population be college educated, as suggested by the European Union. For Hungary 30-35% would be more than adequate.

Some suspicious souls speculate that Viktor Orbán does not want a highly educated public. The more ignorant the better. They can be more easily manipulated.

The Orbán government presses on

Some stories simply refuse to die. Although I have spent more time than usual on the corruption case involving the Hungarian tax authority (NAV), the American corporation Bunge (the complainant), and a Fidesz-established foundation called Századvég, which one of its former associates called a front for money laundering, I think I ought to say a few more words about the latest developments.

Today a new list of possible subjects of the U.S. ban was published by NépszabadságIn addition to Ildikó Vida, chair of NAV, three deputy chairpersons are on the list. All three are women: Mrs. Dezső Csillag, Marianna Dávida, and Katalin Somos. The fifth person is most likely Péter Heim, president of Századvég. The sixth person’s identity is still not known, but he is presumed to be an influential businessman. Right after the news broke about the American decision to ban six Hungarians from entering the United States, “an unnamed businessman” rushed to ATV to share the bad news he received from the U.S. embassy. Although hypothetical lists appeared earlier, none of them sounded plausible to me. This one rings true. Now we just have to find out who the influential businessman is.

The opposition parties keep demanding Ildikó Vida’s resignation, and there has been talk about organizing demonstrations to the same end. In my opinion, such demonstrations would be a waste of time and effort. Fidesz functionaries don’t resign under pressure from the opposition. Moreover, most likely Viktor Orbán doesn’t want her to depart right now because that would be a sign of weakness when he just decided to tough it out. At the moment he might be very angry at her for revealing that she told the government about the U.S. decision, but he needs her to keep the tax office working to enrich Fidesz.

I might add here that I’m becoming more and more convinced that APEH/NAV was an instrument of Fidesz’s money collecting scheme even between 2002 and 2010 when the party was in opposition. Of course, since then the financial opportunities have become much greater. Now not only pressure on businesses yields kickbacks but also huge amounts of public money from government sources land at Századvég and from there go God knows where. The Eötvös Károly Intézet, a legal think tank, wanted to review the “studies” ordered by the Ministry of National Development from Századvég. Unfortunately, they were unable to get hold of the studies, but they managed to learn the exact amount of money Századvég received from the ministry between January 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012. According to the information, the ministry paid out 939,632,750 Ft. and still owed 5,936,845 Ft. Given the personnel and the capacity of Századvég, EKInt figured that the ministry paid 470,000 Ft. (almost $1900) per page for studies ordered by the ministry. Századvég’s answer was that they also provided other kinds of services to the ministry. Of course.

"Good morning my sunshine!" Source: veranus.blog.hu

“Good morning my sunshine!”
Source: veranus.blog.hu

It is equally useless for the opposition to turn to the chief prosecutor for remedies as two Együtt-PM members of parliament tried to do today. They were politely called in for a personal meeting with Péter Polt, who explained to them that his office cannot do a thing as long as they don’t know the exact charges. He wrote a letter to the U.S. attorney general and, if he reveals the details, they will certainly act. Of course, Polt knows perfectly well that the U.S. attorney general can’t release the details. So, that argument is pretty safe. Polt also reassured them that investigations have been going on for some time at NAV and that Ildikó Vida is in no way involved with the cases under investigation. So, this is yet another dead end.

Corruption may not move massive crowds, but internet users may yet have reason to take to the streets. If my reading of the bits and pieces of information that are being released about internet usage is correct, something might be in the offing that is much worse than a steep usage tax. I read with some suspicion that László L. Simon, undersecretary in charge of culture, would like “to improve” the quality of the internet. He also drew attention to the dangers lurking online and called on young people to leave cyberspace and join real-world groups. The fact that Tamás Deutsch is still entrusted with a “national consultation” on the issue of the internet also points in that direction.

Besides the internet, potential protesters should keep an eye on the the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP)’s harebrained idea to close larger chains on Sundays. I’m hoping that the government will not fall for this proposal because of its adverse economic consequences, but anything is possible from this crew. I bet a lot of people would gather for a demonstration against closing the plazas and the malls on Sundays.

Another suggestion to keep pressure on the government is a large demonstration against closing half of the gymnasiums and forcing students into inferior trade schools. Parents, students, and teachers would make a hefty crowd.

There are no governmental checks to Orbán’s drive to create a national illiberal democracy where freedoms are being compromised and increasing numbers of people are living in poverty. Parliament is under firm Fidesz control, and the constitutional court has been packed with Fidesz judges. Only the people can speak against this regime, but they must pick their causes wisely for maximum effectiveness.

Viktor Orbán on the world stage and at home

Every second Friday Viktor Orbán spends about twenty minutes with a servile reporter from Magyar Rádió who asks the great leader about his achievements and plans. But before I cover the latest pearls of wisdom coming from the prime minister I want to share some thoughts about an unexpected private meeting between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Viktor Orbán preceding the European Union Employment Summit held in Milan on October 8.

Critics and opponents of Viktor Orbán’s domestic and foreign policy initiatives were dismayed over news of the meeting. Just when the United States finally seems to be showing signs of greater resoluteness in its dealings with the Hungarian government, Angela Merkel rewards him with a private meeting. Hungarian opposition papers pointed to Merkel’s broad smile and assumed that the encounter had to be friendly. But this might not have been the case. Of course, we don’t know what transpired during the meeting, but there are a few signs that may indicate a less jolly encounter than Merkel’s smile would indicate.

The official government website republished the MTI summary of the encounter, based on information supplied to the news agency by the prime minister himself. What can we learn from that brief description? “First and foremost [they] talked about foreign affairs.” The second topic was energy policy. As far as foreign policy is concerned, I assume the topic was Hungary’s reluctance to support the common EU resolve concerning further sanctions against Russia if necessary. It is also possible that Merkel mentioned her disapproval of Viktor Orbán’s eastern orientation. When it comes to the country’s energy policy, I’m almost certain that Merkel brought up Hungary’s sudden decision to stop sending natural gas to Ukraine three days after the CEO of Gazprom paid a visit to Viktor Orbán.

How do I surmise that? A careful reading of this short report on the meeting makes that interpretation more than plausible. Let me quote the appropriate passage verbatim: “Hungary will be part of the common European efforts, but at the moment she must establish her own energy security. Thus, Hungary now is busy with feeding its own storage facilities.” After January 1, 2015, when the Slovak-Hungarian gas pipeline is functioning, “we will be able to send non-Russian gas to Ukraine, if our Ukrainian friends would like it.” I should call attention here to Orbán’s emphasis on the source of the gas intended for Ukraine. That strongly indicates that he agrees with the Russian position that selling Russian gas to countries outside the EU is illegal.

As for the possibility of a discussion between Merkel and Orbán on Hungarian-EU relations, my source is Viktor Orbán’s Friday morning interview. While until now we have heard only criticism from Orbán concerning the West, which is in decline and on the wrong track, during the interview Orbán praised German economic strategy. The German mentality of hard work and prudence is the basis of  successful economic policy. I might add here that praise of German economic strategy was somewhat ill-timed in the wake of dismal economic news from the country.

As far as future domestic policies are concerned, the Friday morning interview was singularly uninformative. There has been much talk lately about a new era coming, but Viktor Orbán refuses to provide any details. A careless remark by Mihály Varga a couple of weeks ago prompted speculation about the introduction of new austerity measures. Rumor has it that the government cannot hold to the 3% deficit, which may followed by the reintroduction of the excessive deficit procedure by the European Commission. And that would mean turning off the money spigots from Brussels. A government denial followed Varga’s remark, but people are not convinced that austerity measures are not in the offing. The budget that should already have been presented to parliament is still nowhere. According to Orbán, he and Varga will go through the numbers this afternoon.

There was only one topic on which Orbán was more expansive: his ideas about education. Specifically, producing skilled workers. He has big plans for something he calls “dual education,” which will produce a highly skilled workforce. After a student has been in school for eight years he would enter a course of study that would combine some academic study with hands-on work experience. It would be a kind of apprentice (inas) program. There is nothing new under the sun. Many of us still remember Nikita Khrushchev’s introduction of precisely the same type of education. We also remember that it was a huge flop and the experiment was abandoned. I guess Orbán thinks he can do a better job.

But if Khrushchev’s experiment was a bad idea in the 1960s, it is a terrible idea today. Who thinks that eight years of elementary education are enough to produce highly skilled workers who nowadays need higher math, computer skills, and–most likely in Hungary’s case–the command of a foreign language, just to mention a few requirements? The very word “inas” (apprentice) conjures up images of the little boy who was apprenticed to a master and who was terribly exploited by him. He lived with the master’s family and often did all sorts of things that had nothing to do with his future trade.  But in those days one didn’t need a lot of education to learn how to make shoes or to become a bricklayer. Today I would say that to become a skilled worker one should finish high school and have at least a two-year associate’s degree.

journeyman

Back to olden days

I agree that training a skilled workforce is needed, but Hungary is unlikely to be a country where industry dominates. The service sector will most likely remain the mainstay of the economy, as elsewhere in western countries. Moreover, it is not true, as Orbán claims, that “the road to successful life is through crafts” because statistics prove that university graduates’ compensation greatly exceeds the salaries of non-graduates. I fear, however, that he will introduce his ridiculous ideas on education very soon. He promises such legislation this year. I wonder what impact such a reorientation of education will have on the current educational system, which has already gone through a very hard time because of the nationalization and centralization of all public schools. One could also ask where they will find teachers by the thousands to instruct students to become skilled workers by the age of 16 or 18. What will happen to those teachers who today teach academic subjects? The whole thing sounds not only crazy but injurious to the country.

This year was spent mostly on campaigning for three different elections, and therefore the Orbán government had relatively little time to come up with ever new ideas and proposals that become law in record time. I fear this legislative respite is over, and the prime minister will have quite a few surprises for us in the coming months.

Culture and education in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Now that it is almost certain that Tibor Navracsics will be responsible for education and culture in the European Commission, perhaps it is appropriate to focus on how these areas have fared under the watchful eye of Viktor Orbán. I am not exaggerating the prime minister’s role here because we have seen a carefully orchestrated Kulturkampf in Hungary ever since 2010. The government purposely fosters the kind of artistic and literary work that appeals to the political leadership, whose taste is not exactly avant garde. Abstract art is frowned upon, as are the kinds of novels that Péter Nádas, Péter Esterházy or László Krasznahorkai write, although they are the best known contemporary Hungarian writers. The statues that are being ordered or resurrected by the government take us back not to the twentieth but rather to the nineteenth century. I wrote several posts about the fate of Róbert Alföldi’s National Theater, now under the direction of Attila Vidnyánszky, originally from Ukraine. His productions have resulted in a loss of 40,000 theatergoers.

The fate of the fine arts was handed over to György Fekete, a rather bizarre interior decorator, in the form of a new Fine Arts Academy. Its future was ensured when it was included in the new constitution. The academy also got full ownership of the Műcsarnok (Art Gallery/Kunsthalle), until now in the hands of the Hungarian state. It is the largest art gallery in Hungary. It specializes in contemporary art. Or at least until now it did.

Fekete, who is 82 years old and an arch-conservative in politics as well as in artistic taste, picked a man after his own heart, György Szegő, to be the director of the gallery. He is an architect best known for his stage sets. Despite his appointment as director of a gallery devoted to contemporary art, he actually despises the genre that “has become fashionable in the last twenty-five years.” He also has some frightening ideas about art which, according to him, should not “criticize” but “only delight.” Instead of the “art of the technical media” one must concentrate on traditional art forms, especially painting with its 8,000-10,000 year tradition. What the West presents as art is a “soap-bubble” that will burst in no time. So, the gallery that is supposed to give space to contemporary art will be headed by a man who hates it. He will undoubtedly force his own taste on the public. Very soon we will be back to the fifties when only socialist realism could be exhibited.

I’m no art critic, but the man whom Szegő extolled as his guiding light produced this work.

The Two of Us (2010)

György Fekete: The Two of Us (2010)

By contrast, Szegő mentioned by name one of those soap-bubble artists–Jeff Koons, whose exhibit in the Whitney Museum of American Art has been a great success this summer and fall. The Koons retrospective is moving to the Centre Pompidou, Musée d’art moderne, and from there to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

Here is an example of Koons’s work.

Jeff Koons: Tulips (1995-1998)

Jeff Koons: Tulips (1995-1998)

I guess from here on Hungarian art lovers will have to go to Vienna for major contemporary art exhibits, but I’m happy to announce that Szegő will receive twice as much money as his predecessor to run the gallery.

And now we can turn to education and all that the Orbán government did and did not do for it. I talked about the Net of University Lecturers who wrote an open letter to José Manuel Barroso on the sad state of Hungarian higher education. Today Budapest Beacon published the English translation of the document, which I republish here with the permission of the editor of the internet portal.

* * *

September 11, 2014

Dear President:

On behalf of university lecturers working in Hungarian higher education, we would like to congratulate you on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree from the Budapest Corvinus University.  All of us greatly appreciate the highly responsible work you performed as president of the European Commission over the past ten years in the interest of advancing the cause of Europe. We would like to use the occasion of your visit to Budapest to call your attention to the crisis situation in Hungarian education.

Over the past five years the Hungarian government has decreased public funding of higher education in real terms by half, and to this day has not created a measured, predictable financial system for the sector.  The Hungarian budget for 2013 allocates 0.43 percent of GDP to education in place of the minimum 1 percent recommended by the European Union.  The current government seriously limits the autonomy of universities by forcing the dismissal of the directors of financially dependent institutions.  The head of government personally appoints chancellors to serve next to rectors through which he can directly interfere in the running of universities.  The government also threatens the independent operation of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee, thereby discrediting its quality inspections and endangering the international integration of our universities. The financial austerity measures have resulted in many being forced into retirement or dismissed. The body of teachers has suffered significant losses, with those retaining their jobs forced to work more for extremely low wages by European standards.

For five years the Hungarian government has failed to adopt a well-grounded strategy for higher education.  The rights and responsibilities of those running higher education are not transparent.  Meanwhile, the government’s administration for education divvies up resources and provides unlawful advantages to institutions close to them or founded by them.  For example, they intend to give 90% of the support for higher education obtained through tender from the European Horizon 2020 program to the National Public Service University.

Alongside existing higher educational and research facilities struggling to retain what is left of their autonomy, the government is building a parallel higher education and research network to service its own goals.  Part of this strategy is the creation and funding (often circumventing normative criteria) of the National Public Service University and the University of Physical Education.  The latter institution was established by the parliamentary majority with an ad hoc modification to a law.  The rules governing the title of university teacher were changed in a manner custom-tailored to a specific individual in such a way that devalues the title of university teacher.  Recently, it came to light that the Hungarian National Bank awarded an amount equal to one and a half times the annual higher education budget, HUF 200 billion (USD 850 million), to its own foundations with which to endow the teaching of its own “unorthodox” economic theories.  This means that state responsibilities are being funded with public money outside the budgetary process in a manner that cannot be controlled, and on ideological grounds.

As a devoted adherent to European values it may be important for you to know that the current Hungarian government does not help, but obstructs the possibility of social advancement.  The Hungarian government undertakes to strengthen the middle class, abandoning the social strata that is increasingly impoverished.  It lowered the obligatory age for attending school to 16. Instead of real programs intending to close the gap and adequate family support and scholarship system, it pursues policies that are harmful to the poor and encourages segregation in Roma schools.  With these actions it makes it impossible for socially disadvantaged students to continue their education.

In the field of education policy the Hungarian government decreased by 30% the number of students beginning their studies in higher educational institutions, which first and foremost destroys the chances of disadvantaged youth.  It is especially important to state here at the Budapest Corvinus College that the limits placed on the legal, economics and other social studies departments by the Orban government mean only those in exceptional circumstances are to be given the chance to join the economic and political elite.

Through its words and deeds the Hungarian government devalues knowledge and expertise.  Its decisions are made without broad consultation or the involvement of experts, with the exclusion of openness.   Europe must see that the Hungarian government intentionally, deliberately and systematically abandons the values of a democratic Europe and the declared goals of the European Union.

In light of the above, we ask that the European Union more determinedly stand up for its own principles, and take action in every instance when the Hungarian government works against European values.

Translated by Éva Nagy

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A few years ago Tibor Navracsics unabashedly admitted that he faithfully executes all tasks he receives from his superior. Let’s hope that he will be severely constrained if he tries to inject Viktor Orbán’s ideas into the EU’s educational and cultural policies. What is happening in Hungary in these fields goes against everything the European Union stands for.

Learning history in Orbán’s Hungary

The new school year began yesterday and with it an entirely new system as far as textbook distribution is concerned. As you most likely know, a couple of years ago all schools were nationalized and put under the authority of one monstrous organization called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), named after Kunó Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922 and 1931. Critics predicted the failure of such a centralized system where KLIK was to be the employer of about 150,000 teachers. They were right. It was a disaster, which even Zoltán Balog, who is in charge of education, had to admit. The head of KLIK was sacked and right now the government is in the midst of a “reorganization” of KLIK.

One of the important demands of Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary in charge of education, was a reduction in the number of textbooks teachers can choose from. Indeed, as of this year, teachers can only pick one out of two. The textbook publishing industry was also nationalized, so government control over education became all embracing. The new textbooks appeared on the market only a few days ago and therefore each teacher had to decide within a couple of days which one she will use. At the same time a number of “experimental” textbooks were written and introduced in 150 schools picked by the ministry.

Since the “experimental” textbooks have been available for only a few days, critics haven’t had time yet to find all the objectionable passages in them. According to some, at first glance these textbooks are “problematic” in pedagogical terms and reflect “an anti-modernization world view.” There are just too many “political-ideological” messages. One history book spends far too much time on the injustices of Trianon, which only adds to the self-pity of the current generation instilled by the nationalism of the current regime. Others looked at a book on literature (grade 7) that reflects the authors’ distaste for our modern market economy and expresses antagonistic feelings toward life in western countries. For example, to eat hamburgers, visit Disneyland, watch MTV or CNN  means to be satisfied with a lower level of culture.

The same grade 7 textbook is full of anti-American sentiments. In it one can read that “we ought to be proud that according to sociologists for the average Hungarian person the most important value is logical thinking while in the eyes of the Americans this is the least valued trait.” Hungarian medieval poetry that praises war and Petőfi’s calls for struggle can be explained by our “biological roots.”

After reading a few of these critical articles I decided to take a look at a grade 10 history book, one of the experimental textbooks available online. The book covers the period between the age of discovery (15-16th centuries) and 1848. It didn’t take me long to find some glaring problems with the book.

tortenelem 10

At the beginning the students are told–thank God–that they don’t have to learn absolutely every fact in the book but that the concepts that appear in boldface are very important. So, I decided to see how our author deals with some basic concepts. Since anti-Semitism is a topic we encounter a lot nowadays, I decided to start there. To my great surprise, the word appeared only twice in the textbook. Both times as a concept of the utmost importance. But nowhere in the book do we find a definition of the term.

My second search was for the word “nationalism.” That initially looked more promising. The word “nationalism” was mentioned eleven times, but I found no instance that dealt with the concept per se. On page 131 the student learns that after the French revolution there was a new interpretation of the historical nation (nobility) and that it was the “national idea” (nemzeti eszme) or “nationalism.” Proponents of the movement desired national renewal. They tried to form a common national identity and made efforts to discover the national past. So, what does this young man or woman learn? Nationalism is a good thing! Not a word about the negative connotations of the term.

The most controversial discussion of nationalism occurs in connection with the “nationality question” in the so-called reform period, i.e. the last twenty years or so prior to the 1848 revolution. The Hungarian “reform forces” greatly feared the Pan-Slav ideology supported by Russia and were frightened by Gottfried Herder’s vision of the Hungarian language disappearing in the sea of Slavic people. (Pan-Slavism is not explained anywhere in the book.) Therefore, the Hungarian reform generation paid a great deal of attention to the Hungarian language and culture. At the same time they wanted to be sure Hungarians maintained their political primacy in the Carpathian Basin, to which they felt entitled by their 1,000-year history of statehood. Hungarians were able to establish a viable state (államalkotó nemzet) while the others–Slovaks, Romanians, Ruthenians–were not. Rights and privileges were to be extended to all regardless of nationality. This Hungarian concept of nation was based on the definition of the term in the French Encyclopédie. What the authors neglect to mention is that the famous encyclopedia was published between 1751 and 1772, that is before the French revolution. What was a viable way to unify the people of France was no longer true in Eastern Europe.

After this brief discussion, the authors move on to interpretations of Hungarian nationality problems in the first half of the nineteenth century. “Central-European, non-Hungarian historiography unanimously consider the Hungarian language laws of this period as ‘Magyarization’. However, nowadays Hungarian historians present a more complex, more layered study of the question. It recognizes that there were abuses, but the political forces urged a liberal handling of the nationality question.”

I’m trying to imagine myself as a studious fourteen- or fifteen-year-old acquiring a basic knowledge of Hungarian history. What kind of a picture would I get of the history of my own country? By and large a very positive one. I would learn that Hungarians are superior to others living in the Carpathian Basin because they had the ability to establish a state. And that this would entitle them to have political primacy within the historic borders of Hungary. I would learn that non-Hungarian historians are prejudiced against the Hungarians and that in the past Hungarian historians were far too hard on the Hungarian political elite. Lately, I would come to understand, a much more balanced view is emerging that shows liberal tolerance toward the nationalities.

I just heard that István Hiller (MSZP), former minister of education,  is launching a kind of alternative curriculum called “School of Reasoning” (Gondolkodás iskolája). It will be a series of video lectures given by outstanding teachers who donate their time to the project. I think it is a capital idea, and next week when the project begins I will be one of those listening to the lectures on modern history. It will be interesting to compare these lectures to the experimental textbooks.